Ricky Mendoza, Junior, a.k.a. Ghost
Sunday, September 14, 2008
I’m on First Street, eyes up but slouching down, parked across from the Rancho San Pedro Projects at the absolute end of Los Angeles. Not for the first time today, I’m thinking that if I get into this safe and they leave me alone while I’m doing it, I’m taking the money.
Not all of it. I’m not stupid. Just some.
They said 0900 hours. It’s ten past. I’ve been here since 0850, but they’re not here yet. This happens with DEA sometimes. They come when they’re good and ready. No point complaining.
The idea here is that it’s a Sunday so they come at church time. That’s how I know we’re hitting Spanish speakers. It cuts down on the numbers if some are up at church with girlfriends or mothers, and around here that’s probably Mary Star of the Sea on Seventh. I’ve been there once. For a girl too.
DEA love them some Sundays. I’m a private contractor, so it doesn’t matter to me. A locksmith job is a locksmith job. When they got intel that they have a safe on the premises and need it open, they line me up and I open it. I got my laminate across my chest, hidden under my shirt. OFFICER OF THE COURT, it says. I got black license plates on my Jeep. Can’t ever have someone knowing I worked for DEA or FBI or the Sheriffs. Can’t have them knowing I busted their shit all up, see me driving away and figure out who I am and where I live from some numbers on a plate. That keeps me safe.
As far as anyone’s concerned, I’m a ghost when I do this job.
I said that once to Frank when he was first teaching me the trade. He laughed and liked it, so he made it stick. Called me Ghost after that. When he introduced me to anyone, I’d be Ghost Mendoza. Not Ricky. And it worked good because I got pale enough skin that maybe people don’t expect me to speak Spanish but I do. That’s just part of my street toolset now, another way to be underestimated. But that nickname was cool anyways, since Ricky Mendoza, Junior, wasn’t my real name, just one I took as my legal back when it seemed smart to. Like, the real me died back when I changed it and what’s left of me just floats.
I’m a block and a half up from where we’re hitting. I’ll roll up close when they’re done breaking the door in. The nose of my Jeep points down the hill towards the cruise ship terminal and a big white ship there. Behind it, and above it, are big cranes that might’ve been painted turquoise once if the sun didn’t beat the hell out of them every day. Behind those, it’s one of those gray mornings that’ll get hot and burn off eventually but now is just shoulder-to-shoulder clouds.
There better be money in that safe, I think. Not drugs. I can’t do shit with drugs. Back in the day, sure, I knew too good what to do with drugs, but not now.
If you wanna know where gangs hang out in Los Angeles, look for old white signs on stucco apartment buildings that say NO TRESPASSING, L.A.M.C. SEC. 41.23. That’s the posted municipal code. Or there’s newer signs, ones that say the area is closed to the public and violators will be prosecuted. That’s how you fight gangs if you’re a city with not a lot of options. You make it illegal to hang out outside.
There’s one of those signs on every side of these buildings. It’s all L.A. Housing Authority property, stuccoed from bottom to top and barred up on all its windows and doors. Security doors don’t matter. If you don’t open when they knock, that’s when I come in.
If it’s a Medeco or a Schlage Primus lock sitting there, you probably got an extra minute or two to jump your ass out a back window and run straight into an officer with his weapon drawn, just waiting on you to do something stupid. Or maybe you have a slider on the other side of the door. But DEA brings rams. Sliders don’t last long.
The LAHA is cheap as hell and gangs won’t put their own security doors up because that’s like a neon sign saying WE SELL DRUGS HERE! So for normal doors, I got bump keys in my pocket and all it takes is two. One for the security-door lock. One for the front-door lock. They’re my little sharks. I cut their teeth a certain way on the grinder so that they’ll break down normal mechanisms when I wedge it in and give it a few hard taps with a screwdriver handle. Easy.
I can tell by looking at these doors they don’t have anything that can keep me out.
A woman comes out of her place across the way. She’s dragging a baby carriage out behind her before shutting the door in some grand sweeping motion. There’s no kid in the stroller, though. Looks like pots and pans, maybe stuff to sell. I don’t know. Don’t wanna know.
Just being in these sorts of neighborhoods, my stomach gets that old familiar jump. Like the down-drop on a trampoline. The kind where you wonder if you’ll ever go up again. For me, that bounce back up was never taken for granted. Never. In this life, nothing is rock solid. No guarantee you ever get back up after you’re down.
I got this saying, yesterday’s gone and tomorrow never comes. This right here is all there is. This moment.
I know the insides of every single one of these sad-ass little apartments without ever needing to be inside. With their broken-door closets that never slide right no matter how much you try to line them up. With their rusty sink taps that maybe got plumbed wrong so if you turn the cold one, it gets warm but never hot, and if you turn the hot one, you get cold, and you can forget about stopping that drip. There’s rats or roaches or bedbugs or termites too, but hopefully only one of those. One you can live around. You can get used to avoiding traps in the dark, but please, God, not chinches de la chingada cama. Not having to buy an expensive-ass sleeve to stuff your mattress in for a year, or putting your bed’s legs inside little plastic bowls you dust with powder you’re not supposed to breathe or it’ll fuck up your lungs. One you can live with, but not two.
Two makes you crazy. So crazy you never wanna go back.
A tall box of a Mercedes SUV that’s got no business being in this neighborhood turns in off Harbor Boulevard and comes toward me on the opposite side of the street. It slows down like it shouldn’t and I’m shaking my head like, Don’t do it, dummy. I see the tanned-up, white face of the driver from here. He’s scanning the other side, looking for his hookup, but I guess he didn’t call ahead because there’s no one coming out to meet him. So he keeps going. Because even this rich motherfucker from off the hill has the sense to go get coffee and sit around and wait to buy before getting high.
Him, I don’t care about. But it means there’s no one around doing business. And less people around to do business means maybe there won’t be a shoot-out. Maybe DEA’s right about hitting on Sundays after all. At least here, anyways.
Down the street, I watch the cruise ship go out. A floating skyscraper on its side is what it is. The gray of the sky hasn’t moved any.
All of L.A. is bad right now with people losing jobs, but this place is bad without telling anybody. Pedro looks fine on the outside, but if you keep your ear out, you hear. How there’s no casual longshore work. It’s been months. Unions are hurting because trade is down and the port’s not moving like it used to. And you can’t do that shit to Croatians and Mexicans, dude. Can’t have them sitting on cards with nothing to do. If those folks aren’t working, if food’s not on the table, trucks go missing. Shipments go out light or come in the same way. Corners get cut. That’s the shadow you never see because you need light to see it, and this is shit that always gets done in the dark.
I read the papers because Frank reads the papers. I shouldn’t because it makes me sick to my stomach, but I do. Some Lehman brothers are about to be in the toilet. Good, I say. Serves them right for fucking with the mortgage shit. Packaging and repackaging so much that they can’t even tell what’s in those things anymore. Fucking preying on people. Chewing them up. Taking houses away from families that do nothing but try to pay anything they can and calling it business. Nothing worse than that to me. Nothing. Not even murder. Murder is one person. Maybe two.
This’ll be millions if it gets much worse. Families. Little kids. People getting tossed in the street. Bellies going empty. Here’s what you don’t read but most people should just know: when the economy goes down, crime goes up. Average people do what they can and maybe they don’t drown, but people on the bottom got to make ends meet somehow. Mouths don’t feed themselves.
Last month this dude in group hung himself when his bank started foreclosure proceedings. We heard his twelve-year-old daughter and her friend found him when they came home from school. They’re adults now, basically. One moment is all it took to grow them up.
Stories like that stick to me. I can’t shake them off.
Just as I’m thinking that, I see the caravan rolling in coordinated, in my rearview and in front of me. Two trucks coming hot. No lights, just speed. They don’t say DEA, but they’re DEA. I sit up. There’s probably another one around back on Santa Cruz that I can’t see, cutting off chase routes. This is them, the boot that kicks you when you’re doing bad.
They don’t care if you got no choices. Shit, they don’t even know what having no choices is like. On their off-hours they live in Pasadena. Seal Beach. Irvine. They come from that bright world where everybody has them. Where options grow on trees and you can grab them down like oranges.
All’s I’m thinking as I watch la DEA pile out of their trucks in their marked vests to bust in this poor fucker’s door is I’m taking this money.
I put my Jeep in gear and coast down the hill.
How much money, I don’t know. Much as I can get away with. Much as I can line the inside of my toolbox with. Much as I can stuff under the foam holder in my drill case. Much as I can put in my socks.
It probably won’t be $284,353, but it’ll be something.
It will be a start.
The money’s not for me, if you’re thinking it. I don’t need $284,353 for a gambling debt or anything like that. I’ll be sober sixteen years in November. I’m in the black and I got a job. A good job. I got a place to live. Rent’s real low. There’s no rats or roaches or bedbugs or termites. There’s mosquitoes sometimes, but I can handle them. The money’s for somebody else. Somebody who needs it.
I step into the spot, and I swear, it took me less than five minutes to roll down the hill, park, bump the shitty door locks, go back to my Jeep and grab my heavy tools (two drills, drill-bit bag, toolbox), lock up, and head back inside, but by the time I’m walking through the doorway, the place is already a screaming mess because DEA doesn’t play.
All the vents are off the walls and there’s a pile in the middle of the room of supermarket baggies that came out with them. Inside those are foil-wrapped logs looking like tiny burritos. The dog is in and already barking at a wall with a Scarface poster on it, and a wall he must’ve already barked at is getting chewed up. There’s a guy with a stud finder and a guy with a circular saw working it. They cut huge chunks of drywall and then lift them out. Behind those is a whole lot of nothing, but they rip it up anyways.
The inside of this place is how I thought it’d be. The living room mashes itself into a kitchen counter. There’s a ripped-up couch that has already been tossed. Behind that, in the kitchen, is a fridge older than black-and-white TV and next to that is a rusted-out range. No oven. It’s camping, basically. The drywall and ceiling just hide that this is a tent for running what they run till they need a new one. I know it’s true as soon as I see the only bedroom has two mattresses on the floor and two sleeping bags. Which is when I start thinking maybe they got a tip.
In the bathroom, the rippers find loose tile. Underneath that is a main stash so big they take the dog out and give him treats for being a good boy because if he stayed in when they pulled it, he’d lose his shit.
Even halfway full, the hole is a crazy sight. And I’m thinking that maybe it was all the way full before the homies had to split, and they just took what they could as fast as they could. Maybe.
If that’s the case, it might not be good news for that safe. It might be emptier than a bad nut. My face burns just thinking about it.
“Is this,” somebody says before they even finish hauling all the little foil-wrapped goodies out, “all black tar?”
Black tar heroin. If it is, it’s guaranteed from Mexico. And if it’s from Mexico, it’s from Nayarit. I thought all that shit was running through Norwalk or Santa Fe Springs or Panorama City straight to Downtown these days. And pounds don’t really make sense in that context, since they don’t deal in large quantities, but, okay, I think. I don’t need to know everything about everything.
But then that makes me think about the white boy driving by, and how that doesn’t fit the profile of Mexicans from Mexico, because they deliver their shit like pizza, and my stomach doesn’t like that.
I’m still thinking about that when Collins comes up behind me.
“Ghost,” he says, talking over the drywall saw that never stops going. “Hey, Ghost, did you see that Diaz-Katsawhatsit fight last weekend?”
Collins is in charge. He’s a cool fucker. Fiftysomething, give or take. Six feet tall with a crew cut that makes him six feet one. Ex-military, but what branch I don’t know. We always talk boxing, me and him, and the name of this boxer he can’t remember is Michael Katsidis, the Australian with a shitty sun tattooed on his back. You’d think TV boxers could get better ink for all the money they’re making, but that’s never how it is. You come up rough, your body always shows it.
Collins should know who Katsidis is, we’ve talked about him before, so I give the big man shit about it. “You know I catch all them Katsawhatsit fights. That dude is can’t-miss television.”
Collins gives a sour little laugh before saying, “All right, what’s his name?”
“Michael Katsidis. Former lightweight champ.” I get to say former because Diaz just took his belt the Saturday before last.
“That’s it.” Collins nods. “That’s him.”
“Oh, I know it’s him, and you know what? The twentieth century’s long gone and Jack Dempsey doesn’t fight anymore. You don’t always have to go in for the white fighter, you damn racist.”
It’s a good little verbal jab, and it rocks Collins back on his heels before he shoots forward at me.
“What? Fuck off with that!” He punches me pretty good on my shoulder, but he doesn’t know I let him.
Turning and slipping it would’ve made him look bad in front of his guys. And I can’t be having that. Not if I want them to keep calling me.
I get down on the living room floor next to the kitchen counter where some guy marked the safe for me with a chalk-dust circle. I can’t see much, so I start yanking up the carpet.
“You telling me Diaz won? I thought Katsidis threw harder punches,” Collins says, “and he bossed the late rounds. The split decision was harsh.”
That’s who Collins is. He says shit like bossed. He loves punchers, this guy. He loves guys without any subtlety at all. This, he thinks, is more honest fighting somehow. No guard. Just go. He doesn’t know life’s not like that for most people, especially if you’re not a white dude with a degree and a regional DEA command. The rest of us are too used to getting matched up with bigger, stronger, faster opponents. And those advantages have got to be balanced out. You have to beat them with your mind and skill and will. Nothing else.
Me? I think going in with your hands down so you can trade power punches is the way to fight stupid and die young. That’s why I like boxers more than punchers. They’re in and out. It’s about technique. Feinting. Footwork. Hit and don’t get hit. That’s the art of it. The only art.
“You’re crazy,” I say to Collins as I tear back the carpet to the point that I can see how these gangsters chiseled into the foundation to make room for the safe. Looks like someone trying to tunnel out of prison. “Katsidis never throws a jab. Can’t win like that.”
“He doesn’t need to. Doesn’t matter when you hit that hard.”
I try not to make a face like that’s the dumbest shit I ever heard, and I think I do okay by turning to look at the carpet again. Still, I can’t resist saying, “If you can’t judge a fight the right way with punch stats, multiple angles, and slow-motion replay, I worry about you.”
He laughs at that. I do too.
He thinks I’m kidding him. I’m not.
I get back to yanking at the carpet, but in my head I’m thinking, It matters. It always matters. One day you run into someone who hits just as hard or harder than you and right then is when you’ll need to work a jab to keep him off you so you can figure out what to do next. See, jabs are offense that is actually defense. They’re multipurpose. They set up combinations. The jab is the least fancy, least understood, most important punch on earth.
I’ve got the carpet all the way back now. Me and Collins take a look. First thing I notice, it’s big. Real big. Like a refrigerator that got shrunk in the wash. It’s a key-lock safe with a twist handle. Old, too. Maybe an antique, but I won’t be able to tell unless it’s out of that hole.
I say, “I need this hoisted up and flat on this floor before I can see what I’m dealing with.”
Collins nods, turns, and gives the order.
Rudolfo “Rudy” Reyes, a.k.a. Glasses
Friday, September 12, 2008
Getting everybody in the car first thing before the bank opens is this huge production, man. I’m outside putting my one-year-old in his car seat, but my boy don’t want to be in it. Felix is squirming, bouncing off the side walls of it.
Right now, he’s not about being good. And I feel that. I’m angry about having to go too. We’re two peas, me and him.
He’s my first kid. My little me. A soft little knucklehead always trying to stir himself into some business.
Right then, Felix proves it too. He does this duck-and-dive thing before I can get him buckled between his legs. He flops himself face-first onto my shoulder and giggles. I freeze for a second.
I wonder how this would’ve gone if I wasn’t there to catch him. I don’t even want to think about that. I get my breathing back and lock him in. I test the latching twice. He’s still fighting the belt, but he’s not gonna go anywhere.
This’d be funny if it didn’t suck so much.
It’d be better if we had a garage so no neighbors could see. If we had a legit house, and not some rented back house on somebody else’s lot. If we could show even a little money instead of staying on the same block, six streets over from where I grew up, sticking with the appearance of no money and never gonna have it.
That’s how Rooster does things. When you work for him, you got to be invisible. One ant in a colony. One tiny speck among a million other ones.
I can’t give anyone a reason to look at me. For anything. Which is why this whole bank thing’s throwing me off. My father-in-law, he has a mortgage I cosigned on. And that means nothing can go wrong on it. Ever.
So getting that phone call about a missed payment and a collections service made me lose it. Made me figure we’re not calling them back. We aren’t calling the credit union where the payment should’ve come from in the first place. We’re not dealing with no middleman. We go to the source, the bank. Straighten it out person to person.
My wife’s out the door behind me, weighed down with a bag for Felix. It’s got extra diapers. A picture book that don’t even make sense, about a dinosaur egg getting hatched in the future. His stuffed yellow duck. There’s a bottle too. And some guava juice he didn’t drink from earlier. And a little green hat with a brim and two frog eyes on it.
And sunscreen. Which only makes sense to her. We’re going inside a lobby with no sun and she needs sunscreen for his face.
I swear, Leya gets like a white lady with him. All overprotective. Sometimes, Felix has coughs and wakes himself up. He had them all last night. Leya stayed awake with him. Allergies, the doctor said. Pollen. Mold. What he’s allergic to is everything you can’t see.
Leya always stays up when he gets like that, since he almost died inside her. One of those twisted-cord things. But he’s fine now and his brain is fine. We’re super lucky.
When everybody’s in the car, I go three blocks to Leya’s dad’s house, pick him up, and hit Atlantic Boulevard, then Martin Luther King.
I got the radio going. Nobody says nothing the whole way to the bank. Not even little Felix. We’re all some combination of nervous, anxious, and unhappy, hoping it can get worked out today and just be done.
What this bank is, is two big redbrick squares and gray horizontal lines of concrete. Inside, it smells like newspaper and old cigarette smoke, like people used to be able to smoke in this building and then they couldn’t, but it never stopped smelling.
I sign the signing-in form and we wait to get called. Leya has Felix in his little hat already. She’s worried about him getting cold from air-conditioning. We sit for twenty minutes.
Felix won’t take his sippy cup of juice from me even though I’m trying, and my father-in-law’s just staring into the parking lot like he wants to be back out there and done with this.
That’s when I’m done with waiting. I go up to this guy’s desk that’s nearby and not doing a thing but being on his computer.
“I need to see your loans manager, please,” I say in my super polite voice.
He don’t even look at me. No respect. He says, “Did you sign in?”
In the world sitting outside these doors, a guy like this should be scared of talking like this. There’s consequences around here for trying to act above it, the type of things that come up behind you in the dark when you’re walking to your car after work and staring at your phone. It happens so quick you don’t even know what hit you, or from where.
I feel myself getting heated but I smile since I don’t teach those types of lessons to random fools anymore. Not even when I want to.
“Yes,” I say, trying to keep it all polite still, “but there’s nobody else here. I’d appreciate if—”
“Excuse me,” a voice comes from behind me, “perhaps I can be of assistance?”
I turn and see a light-skinned black girl in a real tight blazer. Skirt to the tops of her knees. Red heels.
She puts an arm out beside her to show me her open office door. On the glass beside her, it says MIRA WATKINS, BANK MANAGER.
I’m looking at her, but subtle, trying to drink her in. Almost looking at her without looking at her since I can’t have my wife seeing me see her like that.
This Mira Watkins isn’t what I expected a bank person to look like. She’s built like maybe she hustled a bit. Like maybe this wasn’t always her career. There’s something I can’t put my finger on about her, so I don’t trip, I get everybody into the office and shut the door.
She’s sitting behind her desk, behind her gold MIRA WATKINS nameplate, in a tall black leather chair like some type of queen.
She’s staring at me, looking me right in the middle of my forehead and not in my bad eye. It’s cool. I can tell she’s just assessing. Seeing what I’m about. I’m wondering then if she can tell how real I am. If she has any clue.
Prolly not, I’m thinking. I’m just one more raza dragging my family in, needing help. Nothing more. There’ll be twenty more of me through that front door today.
Mira Watkins kicks it off by saying, “What can I do for you all?”
What I do when I tell her the story is, I start with my father-in-law’s name and account number so she can get to tapping on her computer before I explain the situation and how we got here. I say about the mortgage payment that got missed, the one we didn’t know about. We got a call yesterday from the bank, a person with collections, saying my father-in-law’s behind in his mortgage payments and had been for a couple months.
That tripped him out. Me too. We’ve never been late.
So I tried to check the payments with his credit union by phone, but they’d closed by the time I got off work. What I did then was try to figure it out myself by looking online. And I wondered what was going on since he’d just made a payment.
I mean, I’d just made a payment, but she don’t need to know that.
And I was confused to see that I had a record of the payment this month and last month, but not the one two months before. That’s where the missing payment was. I’d pushed SEND on the online credit-union form just like every month, but that one had never gotten there. I tell my father-in-law in Spanish to take the check out and hand it to her.
“It’s for the missing mortgage payment,” I say, “and we can pay any late fees too, right now.”
She takes the check. Of course she takes the check. But then she gets up and says she has to go check on some things. “There’s only so much I can see on my computer.”
What this prolly is, is BS, but I’m trying to think of what she wants to check and where. I watch her go. Her ass in that tight skirt. Her shoulders back. Looking like she means to handle something.
Felix has his hat off and he’s swinging it around in his hand like he’s gonna shake the eyes off it. Leya lets him.
Hey, she begged me to cosign on this loan. It gets paid on time, all the time. I can’t have nobody in my business. It’s not safe that way.
Mira Watkins, you better not be messing with me. You better be fixing this. If you don’t, things can happen. People I know can show up late at night where you live. They don’t ask you to fix stuff then. They tell.
When she comes back, it’s like she’s a different person. Less businessy. Friendlier. On our side. Prolly she wants me to think that anyway.
She has a folder in her hand, a bunch of papers she’s flipping through. She’s frowning doing it too, but a good frown. “Six years and no late payments. Very impressive. We can take care of this for you, Mister Reynoso.”
That’s my father-in-law’s name. What Leya’s last name used to be.
Mira Watkins hands me a late-fee form I have to sign. I make my father-in-law write another check for the $95 fee. It sucks, but it’s not like it’s his money. It’s mine.
“Things are a little crazy right now,” Mira Watkins says. “I do apologize. I hope you understand how we need to be vigilant.”
Vigilant? She sees me hate her last word the second it comes out of her mouth and she softens. She lets her shoulders go, leans forward.
“I’m so sorry this happened.” She says it to me, with feeling, and then she says it down the line, to Leya, and Leya’s dad too, topping it off with a half-decent accent on her “Lo siento.”
Then she says, “Too many bad things are happening to good people right now. Clerical craziness, that’s what I call it. You get a computer involved and anything can happen. You’ve never missed a payment before, and yet we jump all over it and send it to collections. I’ll look into how that happened, and I’ll make a note in your file that it was taken care of promptly, and maybe we should just give you a phone call next time instead of escalating it right away.”
There’s a tiredness to how she’s saying it. Like this has happened a lot before, and she’s had to give this speech before, but she seems real with it. There’s shame in her cheeks. A double wrinkle in her brow too, like a bent metal hanger you used to be able to pop car-door locks with.
She means it, I think. I look at Leya and Leya looks at me. We agree with a look. We believe her.
I turn back and say, “Can I get something in writing today that says it’s paid and you’re calling off your collection services?”
She claws long fingernails at me in the air, like she’s catching my words, right before she moves her hands back to the keyboard to start typing. “I’m all over it.”
And she is. And that’s good. For us. But for her too.